While other movie directors may peddle low-rent adaptations of videogames to fringe audiences, Paul William Scott Anderson has taken game-inspired movies directly to the mainstream. The U.K.-born filmmaker has midwifed various money spinning projects – most notably the Resident Evil franchise – as writer, director and, increasingly, producer. Even if hardcore fans don’t always appreciate his efforts, he certainly talks the talk. Promoting his most recent film, Death Race, the 44-year-old said, “I think videogames are a valid form of entertainment just as much as books and theater to adapt into films.”
But has he been doing it for the love of the original medium? Or has he just cunningly co-opted a huge wellspring of content and off-the-peg characters to exploit for his own ends? After queuing up with other faithful fans to see all of Anderson’s videogame-related movies back when they were originally released, my gut feeling was that he was a hack. I thought W.S. was a load of B.S.
Then two things occurred to me that made me re-examine my position: 1) At a time when every other producer in Hollywood is frantically snatching up the rights to comic book properties, Anderson has remained faithful to games, prepping a fourth Resident Evil installment and enthusiastically talking up his whip-crackin’ vision of Castlevania on the big screen. Surely that loyalty counts for something? And 2) The critical and commercial success of EA’s Dead Space. The idea that a videogame could so cheekily fillet the hellacious look and unsettling tone of one of Anderson’s rare non-game movies – in this case, the deep space chiller Event Horizon – tickled me immensely. Now, presumably, Anderson knows how it feels to have something he cared about be appropriated by another medium.
In order to reassess Anderson’s body of work, I arranged to watch all of his videogame-related movies in one intense session – a sort of survival-horror gauntlet, but with popcorn instead of green and red herbs. My inner film snob – the voice that thinks it’s genuinely hilarious that Anderson has retroactively added the middle initials “W.S.” to his work to ensure no one confuses him with Wes Anderson or Paul Thomas Anderson – would scrutinize the films for recurring themes or notable stylistic motifs. My inner games freak – the part of me that craves finishing moves and game-related Easter eggs – could monitor his devotion to the cause, all in a bid to answer a single question: Is Paul W.S. Anderson one of “us” (a genuine videogame-lover with the keys to the movie kingdom) or one of “them” (a venal Hollywood hack looking to make a quick buck)?
Mortal Kombat (1995)
After his low-budget U.K. debut Shopping (1994), a ram-raiding thriller with a young Jude Law, Anderson was tapped to direct Mortal Kombat, based on the digitized fighting franchise that was still a big deal in the mid-1990s. Anderson lifted the game’s goofy gothic backstory about a martial arts tournament between Earthrealm and Outworld and put it front and center. From there, he basically rehashed Enter The Dragon with unsatisfying CGI effects, bucket loads of techno and no recognizable stars save for Christopher Lambert as Raiden (who doesn’t even fight!). Though the film was a commercial success, Anderson didn’t stick around for the 1997 sequel. (In 2006, though, he was one of the producers on the comparable film version of cheesecake beat-em-up DOA: Dead Or Alive.)
Inner film snob: Unlike the cartoonish Street Fighter: The Movie, there’s a unified, stylized, forbidding look to Mortal Kombat, and the sequences in Outworld look fairly convincing. The tournament narrative is a sturdy genre convention, although the fight choreography seems clunky by modern standards. Anderson stages the first of what will be many “shock” endings.
Inner games freak: It takes half an hour to get to the first proper fight, but when the thumping techno – complete with the “Mortal Kombat!” warcry – kicks in, it’s pretty exciting. The movie references some of the game’s signature moves, notably Liu Kang’s mid-air woogly-woogly-woogly attack, but fanboy favorites Sub-Zero and Scorpion fall by the wayside far too soon, and the fatalities are tame compared to the source material. In fairness, Liu Kang’s mullet is faithfully rendered.
Resident Evil (2002)
Since the Mortal Kombat series boasts vivid characters but no discernable story, Anderson had relatively free rein when adapting the source material. In contrast, the Resident Evil games have always been cinematic in nature and execution, which is why fanboys were pretty upset when the writer/director/producer created a brand-new character, Alice – played by Milla Jovovich, Anderson’s off-screen partner for the past six years – to anchor the movie franchise. The plot lifts various elements from the games but also has its own narrative agenda: Amnesiac Alice accompanies a Special Forces unit to an underground lab to deactivate a rogue A.I. – only to find the facility overrun with zombies, and worse.
Inner film snob: Though largely studio-bound, Resident Evil has some visual verve and energy, but it’s over-stuffed with characters and incoherent flashbacks. After one standout sequence – a corridor booby-trapped with slicey-dicey lasers – the film falls back on typical zombie stand-off tropes. If this is Anderson striking out on his own, he fails to transcend the source material. An apocalyptic teaser ending is surprisingly effective though.
Inner games freak: How can you possibly have a Resident Evil movie without Chris Redfield, Jill Valentine, Albert Wesker or even Barry Burton? (At least they kept the zombie dogs.) This movie sucks and is disrespectful to the origi- whoa, check out that ending! Just like Resident Evil 2! Paul W.S. Anderson rocks!
Resident Evil: Apocalypse (2004)
Anderson didn’t direct this fast-tracked sequel, but he wrote and produced it, which explains why it dovetails so neatly with the climax of the original. It also seems closely tied to one of the actual videogames, channeling key elements of Resident Evil 3: Nemesis. The only recognizable surviving character from the first film is Alice, who scours a zombie-infested Raccoon City with a largely forgettable bunch of supporting characters to rescue a young girl. A lumbering, well-armed hulk in a trench coat stalks the streets in pursuit.
Inner film snob: Anderson again builds the story around Alice, who is growing in strength and kick-ass confidence. Recurring motifs include numerous scenes of CCTV surveillance, a preponderance of neck-snapping and the return of those zombie dogs. Though grander in scale, the story remains muddled and uninvolving – and while the post-nuclear-explosion ending tees up yet another film, it lacks the oomph of its predecessor.
Inner games freak: Finally, Jill Valentine (played by Sienna Guillory) turns up! There are also Lickers, Hunters and the chance to see the Umbrella Corporation be all ruthless and mean by shooting innocent civilians. This gets me psyched enough to want to go back and play the game, which must be some measure of the film’s quality, right?
Resident Evil: Extinction (2007)
For the sweaty third instalment, Anderson returned as writer and producer, and perhaps more (the credited director, Highlander man Russell Mulcahy, was briefly hospitalized during filming in Mexicali). Five years after Apocalypse, Alice is evading Umbrella satellite surveillance by hiding out in the Utah desert. A convoy of survivors led by Claire Redfield heads for half-buried Las Vegas to resupply for a last-ditch odyssey to Alaska. And Umbrella is experimenting with Alice clones …
Inner film snob: With the shimmering desert setting giving it a whole new look, Extinction feels like a film that has actually evolved beyond the games (although the recent Resident Evil 5 is pretty sun-baked). After being on the run for so long, seeing Alice tentatively reintegrate with humanity – even if it’s just by blowing up zombies with her new Jedi mind powers – is almost affecting.
Inner games freak: Finally, Wesker (played by the main guy from Life On Mars) turns up! Except he’s only a hologram. There are precious few fanboy nods, although the climax is surprisingly staged in the mansion from the first film. And Alice’s desert get-up – stockings, duster and Ghurka knives – would be one hell of a costume unlock.
So, after almost eight hours in his cinematic company, does Anderson seem like one of “us” or one of “them”? He claims he’s a veteran gamer, and from Mortal Kombat onwards he’s obviously convinced financial backers that he has the expertise required to successfully repurpose videogame licenses. Gamers might think they want a slavish recreation of their beloved joypad experiences, but did anyone really enjoy the ridiculous FPS sequence in Doom (2005)? Anderson at least seems aware that videogame movies should try and bring a new dimension to the source material. So I don’t think he’s a hack who’s only in it for the money. It’s just a shame that his ideas about how to expand the source material are so muddled.
While his videogame movies are often topped-and-tailed by punchy, OMG vignettes, the long bits in the middle ¬ – the part most people call “the actual film” – are always overpopulated by barely-sketched characters engaged in incoherent action, a default setting that he’s used three times in a row for the Resident Evil movies. From a wider perspective, it’s fantastic that there’s a successful, female-led Hollywood action franchise out there, but is it wrong to want it to be a bit better?
My conclusion? W.S. is a hack … but he does it for love.
Graeme Virtue is a freelance writer based in Scotland. He is co-founder of the indecipherable naan-fanboy blog Trampy And The Tramp’s Glasgow Of Curry.